As of July 1, 2017, we are unaware of any further activity on the part of the Harris Neck Land Trust. Their development proposal to Fish and Wildlife was rejected, and there is no pending litigation or legislation that we know of. We will continue to monitor the situation and will report to our members and contacts if anything new develops.
Threatened wood storks nesting at Harris Neck NWR
Over the past few decades, former land owners at Harris Neck and their descendants have been attempting to have the land that currently makes up the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge returned to them.
The issue of the legality of the condemnation process by which the land was taken has been settled in federal court and no further legal action is anticipated. The issue that the Harris Neck Land Trust is now raising is the fairness with which the landowners were paid. They are demanding that the land be returned and divided up among the previous owners or their descendants. They claim that this can be done without sacrificing the refuge's function in preserving the wildlife and wildlife habitat that now exists there.
The Friends group has decided not to comment on the racial and economic issues surrounding the initial taking of the land in 1942 by the US Army for use as a training base for pilots. Our position is that the legality of the process has been upheld in court, that the refuge is now a critical national treasure whose role would be destroyed by dividing it up into home sites with additional commercial development, and that the refuge should remain intact. In addition, many national parks and wildlife refuges have obtained land through a very similar condemnation procedure. Passage of legislation returning the land at Harris Neck NWR would have the potential to open a flood of claims from former land owners around the country demanding that their land also be returned.
Friends members Jim McMahon and Mark Yeager have done extensive research on the Harris Neck land issue, reviewing many historical sources, and have complied a number of documents that address the issues and some of the misinformation that has been put before the public. Please check out the documents below:
Further information is available at the bottom of this column.
On December 15th, 2011, the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs held a hearing in Washington DC at the behest of Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) to once again review the claims of the original owners of part of the land that now makes up Harris Neck NWR.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association asked the Friends to send a witness to the hearing to present a private citizen volunteer's position. Friends group Board of Directors member and Secretary Dot Bambach was able to travel to DC on short notice to testify at the hearing.
For years Dot has been very involved as a volunteer with the wood stork (Mycteria americana) monitoring project at Harris Neck NWR and did an excellent job explaining the vital role that the refuge plays in the recovery of this endangered species. To see a video of the hearing and her testimony, click HERE.
The Friends group has contacted other concerned groups and prepared a briefing document to present to legislators and staff presenting the facts of this issue as documented. US Representative Kingston has received this document along with a summary letter backed by the Friends group, the Blue Goose Alliance. the Georgia Ornithological Society, the Ogeechee Audubon Society, and the Coastal Georgia Audubon Society.
Two recent articles have reported on the current status of the dispute. The Harris Neck land Trust was apparently expecting action from congress following the December 2011 hearing, but no action has been forthcoming. The second article indicates that Rep. Kingston feels he has done what he can do and it is now up to congress. No legislation regarding the issue has been introduced.
2. Harris Neck NWR home page